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14th December | 26 Kislev

13 Dec, 2017 | 25 Kislev, 5778

Passage from India

Tuesday, 16 July 2013 | 9 Av, 5773


Visiting New Delhi about a month ago, we stumbled across a protest at one of the city's landmark national monuments, The India Gate, a pale sandstone and granite portal inspired by the Arc De Triomphe in Paris and the older Roman Arch of Titus. It's an impressive building particularly in the early evening when it is illuminated against the overarching Delhi sky. Our attention was, however, drawn not to the monument, but to the protesters and their angry signs. We had inadvertently stumbled into the first protests against the brutal gang rape of a young Indian student on a bus in New Delhi.

From that point on, we were confronted by wall-to-wall media coverage of the incident. It seemed the whole country was talking, arguing, debating and agonizing about nothing else. There was a sense that this was a watershed moment in this rapidly changing society. Since 1991 India's economy has quadrupled and it is now ranked among the world's fastest growing places but what we were witnessing is a seismic change in its cultural attitudes. India is a complex and perplexing blend of old and new, feudal and ultra-modern. We were staggered by its poverty, dirt and backwardness, we were stunned by its wealth, innovation and forward-looking spirit. Beautiful hotels and gracious old palaces adjacent to slums, human and animal waste. The same contradictions are inherent in its cultural ethos: female feticide is still practiced and primitive attitudes towards women which stem from the still powerful caste system are still evident. "Eve-teasing" is the local term forsexual harassment and is common as is rape. In fact, commentators talk about India's rape culture and its hostility towards women. At the same time India's most powerful politician is Sonia Gandhi and there are articulate, intelligent and educated women in positions of influence across the country. I was shocked by the way Indian men ogled at my daughter; I was deeply impressed by some of the Indian women we met and saw on the TV screens.

While this case highlights unique elements of Indian society it has relevance to all societies and resonance for us as Jews it. It's relevant in that the harassment and abuse of women is still prevalent in all Western Societies. As one example, in Victoria domestic violence has a greater negative impact on the health of women than any other risk factor. India's angst is a reminder that as a society we too still have a way to go in improving our own attitudes towards women. Rape, more than anything else, is about violence and power. We need to teach this to our sons as well as our daughters.

Judaism has long wrestled with its own attitude towards women. The books of the Torah especially Genesis and Exodus have many examples of strong, outstanding women. It also has many examples of women being treated as secondary: the rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah is a classic case of the treatment of a woman as a possession without choices of her own. The words of AmanDeol, general secretary of a Punjab women's right Group could be talking about Dinah "Our society is feudal.  A woman....is like a piece of land. She does not have freedom of any kind - over her body, her mind or her choice of partner". We can justifiably take pride in the powerful independence of the women of Shemot (Exodus). At the Red Sea Miriam, lead the women in an ecstatic song and circle of dance.

Rabbi Kalonymas Epstein provocatively suggests that Miriam's actions go even beyond the great song of Moses. He reads (as Zornberg suggests) the women's dance at the Sea as the ultimate choreography of the human relationship to God. In a circle all points are equidistant from the centre, all hierarchies disappear. Women and men are equally valued.

However, as enlightened as Judaism may be in its treatment of women, it has always had its reactionary trends - negative comments about women in the Talmud, the derogatory sexist attitudes among some contemporary religious groups. The fact that we elevate women to a level of righteousness and elevated spirituality seems to give some the permission to disparage the very women they come across everyday. India may have many wonderful female gods, Sati,Parvati, and Kali but this attribution of Divinity is ironically a subtle form of dehumanisation, a making of women into the “other”, upon a pedestal….

India Gate is modelled on the Arch of Titus. For us Jews the Arch of Titus is a reminder of pain and shame: depicting as it does the plunder of Jerusalem and enslavement of Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple.

It is however also a reminder of our ultimate triumph: the ancient Roman Empire is no more, but the people of Israel once more live in their own independent country. And a feisty democratic one as the elections testify. In this is a message of hope for the women of India, an affirmation that  "If adversity is great; men are greater than adversity". (Tagore)